Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Springtime 08: New Life, Live Shows

This blog may have been inactive over the last month, but there's been plenty of live action in Toronto that I've had the pleasure to be privy to. As noted here and here and finally here (with my retort in the comments), Destroyer was not one of them. Here's a brief recap.

March 27
Burnt Sugar at Lula Lounge.

This is an arkestra conducted by guitarist and cultural theorist Greg Tate, featuring fine funk and jazz players, yet it never really coalesced in the unexpected ways I expected—if that makes any sense. I was hoping for more sense of rhythmic and harmonic freedom, but instead the band seemed content to ride rather simple grooves that one sympathetic colleague uncharitably described as "jam band territory." The much-ballyhooed "conduction" employed by Tate and his band members didn't seem any different than what every jazz band on the planet does: communicate through eye and hand gestures on stage, with or without a baton in your hand.

There were definitely inspired moments, mostly courtesy of the alien-like MIDI saxophonist and the punchy baritone player. But overall, I much prefer the wilder and more inclusive antics of Toronto's own Dave Clark and the Woodchoppers Association, who have been conducting improv sessions for the better part of ten years now. Anyone who's witnessed the Woodchoppers at the Tranzac, at the old Ted's Wrecking Yard, or Clark's annual Hillside Festival workshops knows exactly what I'm talking about. Clark pushes his players—and often the audience—in every possible direction and isn't afraid to rip everything apart before pulling it back together, making Burnt Sugar seem downright safe in comparison.

March 28
Kalimba Summit: Kahil El'Zabar, Njacko Backo, Laura Barrett, Nifty at Tranzac.

As one can tell from hyper-self-conscious articles like this one, Toronto's indie rock community suffers from a load of white guilt when it comes to building bridges to the rich world music community here. But thanks to the valiant efforts of people like David Dacks of The Abstract Index and, more specifically, Jonny Dovercourt of The Music Gallery and Wavelength, events like this are starting to become more commonplace. And hopefully they become less stilted than much of this evening ended up being.

Nifty is Matt Smith, who formed Les Mouches with Final Fantasy's Owen Pallett back in the early days of Torontopia. His debut album, A Sparrow! A Sparrow!, was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2007, involving sound collage, metallic percussion pieces, aquatic techno and avant-garde folk songs. In many ways, Nifty is everything I always hope Sandro Perri's various projects (Polmo Polpo, Glissandro 70, his self-titled folk material) will be but rarely are to these ears.

Live, however, Smith is stuck behind his sampler, loop pedals and mixing board, with nothing much to focus the eyes on other than his highly questionable 80s fashion choices. And while the reverb-drenched recording rarely gets stuck in a swamp, the live set does exactly that all too often. As for his use of kalimba, it was obviously inspired in part by Congotronics, but he didn't take it far enough in that direction to hold the interest of the audience faction who came to hear the headliners.

Laura Barrett has single-handedly brought the kalimba to the attention of Toronto's indie community, and it's safe to say that she was the impetus for this evening's programming. Her two EPs to date don't do proper justice to what she does and where she's going: her crazy busy kalimba playing is the perfect complement to her abstract sense of melodics that recalls late-period Joni Mitchell—in a good way—and the new material, due out this fall, showed her continuing to grow away from her cutesy beginnings.

Barrett claims to have felt a bit out of place on a bill with Njacko Backo, an African-Canadian from Cameroon who fronts a band called Kalimba Kalimba—obviously not a newcomer to the instrument. Backo also spends part of his time performing and teaching for school children, a trait that came across all too well at this performance. His lyrics were simplistic and sadly often cloying. He appeared to be having some rhythmic difficulty perhaps due to a bad monitor mix, and the way he joked about bullying the audience into crowd participation had the counterintuitive effect of feeling uncomfortable.

The evening took a total shift when Kahil El'Zabar took the stage. A tall, cool and commanding figure, he took a markedly different approach than everyone on stage before him. El'Zabar plays the blues, sparse and full of soul, and without the busy rhythms that mark most kalimba playing. He has the demeanour of a seasoned jazz dude, the kind who can casually remind you that he's played with everyone from Paul Simon to Nina Simone to Pharoah Sanders without seeming like a total jackass. He works himself into a trance, to the point where he's humming gutturally and practically twisting his head around Stevie-style, lost in the moment and pulling us in with him. It had been a long night at that point, but there wasn't any question of anyone bailing early once El'Zabar cast his spell.

He made a great speech (among many) that gave Laura Barrett some props and then invited everyone on stage for a final jam. The collaboration was less remarkable than we'd hoped, and perhaps a visibly unimpressed Njacko Backo did the right thing by curtailing it early on. But it was worth trying—as was this bill, which if nothing else introduced Barrett and El'Zabar to new audiences and each other. More culture clash, please.

March 31
Sunset Rubdown at Lee's Palace.

I've seen Sunset Rubdown plenty of times, including very early band incarnations at tiny gigs in Montreal. I've even seen them plenty of times at Lee's Palace; this would be my third time. And because I somehow postponed spending any serious time with the latest album—Random Spirit Lover, which came out last fall—this gig wasn't on my radar at all. Until, that is, my old friend Mark "The Nooch" Nichol wrote and asked if I was coming; he's the latest addition to his Mile End Sunday soccer mates in Sunset Rubdown, playing kalimba, bass, and percussion, and I had yet to see him in the band.

The Nooch did not disappoint, and neither did the rest of his new crew. They're packing more muscle now that there's a bass being traded about on stage. Camille Wynn-Ingr still sounds magical harmonizing with Spencer Krug, who remains one of the more endearingly awkward men currently fronting a powerhouse band. And the two dudes trading guitar and drum duties take an inventive approach to both instruments that elevates the arrangements far above the realm of rote rock bands.

The new material is better than I remembered the album sounding, especially the song that Helen Spitzer always thinks sounds like Big Country. And I'm still baffled at the sight of people holding hands, singing and swooning to "Us Ones In Between," though it's a lovely sight.

April 8
Jens Lekman, Final Fantasy at Great Hall

Hearing brand new Final Fantasy material was reason enough to go to this show. Seeing Jens Lekman live for the first time was another. And I'd be lying if I said that the fact that I live about a 30-second walk away from the beautiful, hallowed venue wasn't yet another still.

Despite its beauty, the Great Hall has some serious acoustic problems, which plagued much of the Final Fantasy set. It put off Owen Pallett somewhat and didn't help his nerves about debuting new material that he didn't consider finished works. Not that it mattered: the new songs sound great, punctuated with lots of staccato rhythms he creates by bouncing his bow on the strings, sounding not unlike Japanese kotos. The new album will be called Homeland, due out in the fall, and Pallett described it as being set in a "fictional world where I am the supreme deity." Um, isn't that the case with all narrative fiction, in song lyrics or otherwise?

Jens Lekman had a lot of love from the crowd for his Swedish Jonathan Richman schtick, which would fall flat on its face were he not such a charmer. He's as deadpan as the Flight of the Conchords, and yet because of his ESL lyrics it's not always clear when he's conning you and when he actually thinks he's nicked an awesome rhyme. Either way, his charisma outweighs the cheese, and his way with classic melodies supercedes any other shortcomings. Plus, for this performance he was joined by Final Fantasy's projectionist Steph Comilang, who added visual splendour to the stripped-down set that otherwise featured only a percussionist and the occasional backing tape.

Lekman wrapped up the evening by performing in the park beside the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (I was in bed by that point); something he'd obviously planned from the beginning of the set, and seemed itchy to ditch the formality of the stage show to get to it.

April 10
Hilotrons, Andy Swan at Horseshoe

Ottawa's Kelp Records crew rolled into Toronto with a couple of well-kept secrets, a niche that Kelp seems to have nailed down. It's a specialty that no label aspires to, and while Kelp may be a sensation in their hometown—witness their ability to throw massive weekend-long parties at the city's major venues every April to celebrate their anniversary—they're far under the radar in Toronto.

That's true even of their only Toronto act, singer/songwriter Andy Swan. Changing the name of his long-running band Detective Kalita to The Michael Parks doesn't help, nor does the fact that he just released a solo album under his own name (Andy Swan's Ottawa).

He's got some critics in his corner, he has the undying loyalty of his Kelp peers who talk him up every chance they get, and he has Polmo Polpo's Sandro Perri playing slide guitar for him occasionally. He also has an arsenal of great songs, but not the kind that make an immediate impression or that his modest stage persona is about to give you a major sales job on. Swan is so subtle that it's taken me years to cotton on to what a talent he is; every time I've seen him I fall further under his spell, and this performance sealed the deal. Without a major hustle behind him, Swan can only hope for a Ron Sexsmith-esque career revival a few more albums down the road.

The Hilotrons are major stars in Ottawa, yet rarely play outside the city limits. That should change with the release of Happymatic, a fine pop album that makes you instantly forget about all those other herky-jerky Devo-tees who are giving art-damaged early 80s pop music a bad name.

The Hilotrons boast a bouncy rhythm section capable of twisting beats upside down and around, while vocalist Mike Dubue unleashes synth squiggles in between a pitch perfect vocal performance. We expect so little from male singers in rock band these days, leaving the operatic performances to melodramatic drama queens in moody art rock bands or sensitive folkie acts. Dubue is having none of that. He's a belter who doesn't need multiple takes to get it right; he nails it every time, as does every instrumentalist standing behind him on stage.

I'd heard earlier recordings by this band and found them mildly interesting at best; Happymatic was a pleasant surprise. But nothing prepared me for how jaw-droppingly awesome the Hilotrons' live show is—miss them at your peril. They certainly don't deserve to be relegated to "well-kept secret" status.

April 14: Man Man, Yeasayer at Lee's Palace

Man Man has always sounded insane. Lead singer Honus Honus howls to a point well beyond hoarse while attacking his keyboard; drummer Pow Pow looks like he'd be sequestered in a straitjacket had he chosen any profession other than percussion; the rest of the band look like a ragtag crew of salty sailors with a questionable grip on sanity. And yet the music has always worked: their strange mash-up of klezmer, cabaret, barrelhouse piano, kitchen sink percussion and raunchy blues managed to never get completely unhinged. Until now.

Maybe they've been playing these songs too long on the road and are bored by now, but there was a perverse desire to play everything twice as fast. The manic marimba player looked like he was ready to lose some limbs. As if to compensate, cracks started to show in their collective stamina by set's end, allowing them to play the until-now rare live treat "Van Helsing's Boombox," a track that's as tender as Man Man ever gets.

Not that anyone in the crowd seemed to mind. Word of mouth has built up over the past three years, thanks in part to the fact they now share a label with Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and there were no doubt many newbies who came out to witness the spectacle. The band seemed all to eager to please, pushing everything over the top and barely able to stay in one spot for more than two bars. Honus Honus in particular had trouble focusing on his piano, because he had a perverse desire to smash yet another piece of percussive metal every two bars or so, while the other Men Men pushed their already-ridiculous falsettos well beyond the breaking point.

Man Man on a bad day are still infinitely more entertaining than most of what builds a buzz on the blogosphere these days—which brings us to opening act Yeasayer. This Brooklyn band might be one of the hippest things among those born after 1980, but anyone a bit older than that will be forced to recall Oingo Boingo for the first time in over 20 years. Individually they're amazing players, but that doesn't for a second excuse the monotonous mess they get into. As soon as they took the stage, I realized that I had actually seen them before once, in NYC, and had made a point of forgetting about them. Visually, they're a motley crew, with a preppy vocalist that looks like a young John Linnell from They Might Be Giants, bookended by a Latvian mafia bassist gyrating his hips and a noodly guitarist focusing on his effects. One song with a First Nations vocal feel managed to cut the mustard, but the rest of the set felt downright punishing.

So did Man Man, I'm sure, for some people. Even this day-one fan found them a bit much on this outing, like they were trying to hard to impress the larger audience that had suddenly shown up to see them. Just be yourselves, Men.

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